England’s spirited comeback against Sweden was a thrilling performance long over England fans. Here’s why the class of 2012 are making it fun to be an England fan again.
Arsenal’s Theo Walcott And Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck Put A Smile Back On England Faces
When was the last time you truly enjoyed watching England at a major tournament? For too long this is a question that has failed to provoke a rapid response from England fans. Against Croatia in 2004? The victory over Argentina in 2002? Perhaps even as far back as Euro ’96. Whatever your answer, it is unlikely to feature a match from the last eight years of England on the biggest stage. As England fans we have been subjected to a multitude of lethargic victories, turgid draws and crushing defeats. It was eight years ago, in that aforementioned Croatia clash, that England last scored more than two goals in a tournament match. Last night, as the final whistle drew a communal sound of relief in the pub, a friend of mine declared he was buying a round “to celebrate.” That’s right, not for a sobering dose of reality, or for a way to drown out our sorrows, but to celebrate. Last night, it felt good to be an England fan once again.
Of course, we have been in this position before as England fans, and it is still important to keep our feet on the ground. Sweden are far from formidable opposition, they are the second team to be eliminated from Euro 2012 and are now officially the biggest bottlers of the tournament after surrendering leads in both their matches so far. There were plenty of obvious flaws in England’s performance; most notably Glen Johnson’s woeful positioning and the tepid defence of set-pieces that let Sweden back into the match. Yet in the immediate wake of England’s victory, their fans can for once indulge in a rare enjoyable performance rather than dissecting mistakes and writing their team’s eulogy.
Besides, why should we focus on the negatives when there were more than enough positives for England fans to savour? Firstly, it is encouraging to rest in the assurance that the man responsible for your team knows exactly what he’s doing. England’s game was far from perfect, yet almost all of Hodgson’s decisions were on the mark. Some questioned the decision to start with Andy Carroll for England. Those who did were surely blushing by the half-hour mark as England led due to a sumptuous Gerrard cross and Carroll header, as beautiful as any intricate thirty pass move you are ever likely to see. When change was needed, Hodgson did not dither. As soon as Mellberg scored his second, the disappointing Milner was removed for Arsenal’s Theo Walcott. A change of approach was the result and ultimately, Walcott’s introduction turned the game around back in England’s favour.
It was this last half an hour after England fell behind, and Walcott was introduced, that truly set the pulses racing. As the majestic prat Ibrahimovic roared in Joe Hart’s face, it seemed a familiar fable was once again being written. Only three times previously (vs West Germany in 1966, vs Cameroon in 1990 and vs Croatia in 2004) had England recovered from a losing position in a major tournament to win the match. Undoubtedly the narratives of a mental weakness, a tactical naivety and a technical deficiency were making their way to sports desks throughout the country
Yet Roy Hodgson’s England feels different. Watching the stirring comeback, the team felt to me as somehow fresher, more united and even more likable. What was particularly striking about the England team last night was the influential presence of a number of both young talents and relatively new faces to the England set up. Only four of the starting eleven had previously represented England at an international tournament. It is easy to forget that distinguished performers Joe Hart, Scott Parker, Joleon Lescott and Ashley Young only became permanent fixtures in the side after the catastrophe of 2010. The youthful vivacity of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott (who did not play in Germany in 2006) have also added thrilling vigour to a side whose preceding performances had been ponderous and lacking in urgency. The latter players combined particularly pleasingly for England’s winner. Welbeck’s improvised finish was a different example of genuine technical quality to go alongside Carroll’s. All of these “new” England players still possess plenty of hunger and have even more to prove. Unlike the “golden generation” these players have not been christened as the second coming throughout their careers. Conversely in fact, players such as Andy Carroll and Theo Walcott have often been pilloried for their performances at their high-profile premier league clubs. Scott Parker has had to wait until the twilight of his career to get a real chance for England. These players have a point to make to both the nation and to themselves, their drive and determination to force a win last night proved as much.
Furthermore, this squad has defied even greater odds and is becoming somewhat likeable in the eyes of many England fans. The usual stench of a John Terry is being overpowered by the beaming smile of an Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The England squad is far, far from a group of desirable individuals, but so far this tournament they at least seem to be playing as a united and happy team who are enjoying their journey together. From high-fives on the bench to Theo Walcott’s sheepish celebratory smile and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain’s grin as he prepared to enter the fray, this England squad does not seem crippled by the fear that has diseased previous campaigns. We cannot convincingly argue that England look any close to being European champions as they did at the beginning of the tournament. Yet for once, the road to predictable failure for England fans looks set to be an enjoyable and exciting one.